Let's say right off that Donald Hall (The Ox-Cart Man) can string together the vagaries of a solitary rustic, from youth to old age, with a folk-ballad rightness that substitutes for a story; and that Mary Azarian (A Farmer's Alphabet, The Tale of John Barleycorn) can picture the man and his surrounds with a directness and vigor that makes for compelling compositions. Therefore it matters not a great deal probably that the man's life is shaped by his unhappy childhood--a ""stingy, lazy and mean"" father, from whom he eventually flees--and that this grim interpolation is an overload in a picture book. But this is not in any case a work for the faint-of-heart: ""He made friends with a brown owl that he called Grover Cleveland. He caught mice with his bare hands and brought them to his friend the owl."" (Azarian pictures, with force, the hand closing in on the mouse.) It's the lifestory of a self-sufficient maverick: ""He carpentered or he shingled people's roofs, slowly and thoroughly. Because he worked when he wanted to, sometimes he worked all night."" The rhythms in the telling well suit the slashes and patternings in the starkly black-and-white (on buff) woodcuts. But Hall and Azarlan evoke tenderness as well as grit, family devotion as well as woodsmanly independence. There's character, integrity, communication--if not a shapely, easily digested story.